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Saturday 15 November 1997, 10am-4pm

Eugenics in Finland and the other Nordic Countries

Professor Marjatta Hietala, University of Tampere
Mr Markku Mattila, University of Tampere
Professor Gunnar Broberg, University of Lund

Scandinavia is often looked upon as a unit, yet surprisingly little has been written about the common history of the various countries. Historically and ethnically, the area is comparatively homogeneous, which may be one of the reasons why the notion of a ‘pure’ Nordic race was a myth much exploited in propaganda. Speculation about a German or Nordic ‘master race’ existed earlier than one would care to admit. By the 20th century, nationalism and racism had become intricately interwoven.

The nationalistic tone was more often than not coupled with a belief in science, which led to far-reaching experiments in social and genetic engineering. Eugenics (from Greek ‘eugenos’ meaning ‘of good descent’) was practised in the form of enforced sterilisation (mostly of mentally handicapped people) in all the Nordic countries for many decades. The numbers involved have certainly raised some eyebrows but the fact remains that these sterilisation programmes were in no way classified information. It is only now, however, that a debate has risen about Nordic eugenics in Britain which may well spread to all the Nordic countries.

The lectures by three Nordic scholars of eugenics aim to explain the birth and development of racial thinking and propaganda in Finland and Sweden in particular. They will focus on the importance of a homogeneous geography and history for political solutions and on the effect of ‘middle-of-the-road’ politics so typical of 20th-century Scandinavia. Some of them will also comment on the Nordic consensus which often makes pure political analysis uninteresting.

The role of science, already mentioned, will be discussed in terms of the modernisation of the Nordic countries, bringing about both economic prosperity and a particular mentalité. The speakers will also touch on the large-scale social experiments, which are common in the Nordic welfare policies and which make medical politics a ‘scientific’ part of modernism in a sometimes risky way. Finally, the speakers will focus on questions of continuity in eugenics and 20th-century biomedical politics.


For this concise history of eugenics in the Nordic countries, we are indebted to the recently published book Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, edited by Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen. Michigan State University Press 1996.

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